There is a precise protocol to be followed: black dress, long sleeves and a veil for women, tuxedo for men. A white dress? Only for Catholic queens
Vatican protocol states that for papal hearings, women should wear long sleeves, formal black clothing and a black veil to cover the head. Since the 1980’s, however, the dress code (tailcoat for men, black dress and veil for women) has become far less rigid.
Only in private hearings with the Pope are women required to cover their heads and wear mourning clothes. In hearings with the Holy Father, women are required to wear a dress with a sober cut and colour, which should preferably be black. At the end of the pontifical ceremony, the faithful are called to greet the Pope by kissing his hand. Women may wear a dress but it must not be low cut, it must cover the shoulders and the skirt part should be below the knee.
Naturally flashy jewellery should be avoided: something discreet and elegant is fine, and if one has to choose, it is better to wear less than to overdo it. In general one should not exagerate with accessories and these should not have any loud colours. Above all, it is important to remember to keep the head covered at all times. The Pope should be addressed as “Your Holiness”.
The privilege of wearing a white dress during hearings with the Pope is only granted to Catholic queens or Catholic spouses of kings. They are allowed to wear a white dress instead of the usual prescribed black dress. Currently, this privilege extends only to Queen Sofia of Spain, Queen Paola of Belgium, Queen Fabiola of Belgium and the Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg, all from Catholic monarchies.
When there was a monarchy in Italy, the privilege was also granted to the Queen of Italy. Despite their being Catholic, the privilege does not extend to the Princedoms of Monaco and Liechtenstein. The wives of the presidents of the republic are not granted the privilege of wearing white. Many female leaders no longer wear black during papal audiences: neither Mary Robinson nor Mary McAleese, the two female Irish Presidents, ever wore black during John Paul II’s audiences, while Russia’s first lady Raissa Gorbaciova wore a red dress to one of the papal audiences. Cherie Blair, the wife of the British Prime Minister Tony Blair sparked controversy when she wore a white dress to the audience held by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.